How to (Finally) Break the Longstanding Hold of Legacy Technology

Without question, we’ve seen more technological innovation in the last 30 years than we have in the last century. We now live in a reality of seemingly limitless possibilities and outcomes. Today, virtually any object can be considered part of an advanced, interconnected ecosystem. Companies across every sector are competing to reimagine customer engagement. The user experience is fundamentally changing as people, processes and services become more dynamically connected. Today’s smart, digital era represents unmatched opportunity for forward-thinking business leaders everywhere.

At the same time, however, it poses some challenges. Specifically, this rapid pace of innovation means businesses must find a way to quickly and efficiently modernize to competitively differentiate. In a time where digital disruptors are building custom IT environments on the fly, companies can no longer let legacy architecture dampen innovation and agility

Businesses know this all too well, with 90% of IT decision makers believing that legacy systems prevent them from harnessing the digital technologies they need to grow and thrive. This is especially true in industries like government and finance, where there’s still a heavy dependency on legacy technology. For example 71% of federal IT decision makers still use old operating systems to run important applications. Meanwhile, 30% of senior investment managers say they’re concerned about the ability of their current legacy systems to meet future regulatory requirements. This list goes on.

It’s clear that something needs to be done here, and fast. So, how exactly did we get to this point of digital disruption, and what can be done about legacy systems today? Let’s take a walk through recent history, and then discuss how companies can begin moving towards digital, next-generation IT.

Data Centralization to Decentralization

Let’s start where applications first began being consumed. About 30 to 40 years ago, all application intelligence was centralized (I’m sure some of you remember the good old mainframe days of using dumb terminals or emulators to access applications and store data centrally). There were some notable benefits to centralizing data in this fashion. There weren’t many issues with storage distribution, for instance, and disaster recovery procedures were clearly documented. Security challenges were also practically nonexistent because there wasn’t any local storage on the terminal (hence, dumb).

Soon, however, we saw the rise of the personal computer, which completely changed this model. Computing and storage could now be distributed, allowing local applications to run without any centralized dependency. This was a game-changer that sparked a desktop war between key market players like Microsoft (Windows), IBM (OS2), and Apple (MacOS).

This transition to decentralization, however, wasn’t without its challenges. Employees may have gained mobility, but IT began facing new challenges in security and distributed storage. Companies were left wondering how to best control their data storage, specifically where confidential information could easily be stored on a floppy disk, local hard drive and, later, USB drives. This remains a challenge to this day—no one wants to give up their mobility, so companies must find a way to instead regain control.

One thing to note: at this point, COTS (Commercial off-the-shelf) servers could now be used. These systems were far less proprietary than previous host systems like mainframes, VAX, etc. However, they were still hardware-dependent, as each platform was usually tailored to the applications it had to run. As a result, a good amount of compute, memory and storage resources were not being fully utilized. In fact, some services were running as low as only 10-20% capacity. While there were benefits to COTS servers, they called for a better way to maximize the use of all resources.

The Rise of Virtualization

The only viable solution to these problems was to eliminate hardware in favor of ONE single software application. But how? The market experienced profound change as companies strove to answer this question, eventually leading to the emergence of virtualization.

During this time, market leaders like VMware began transforming the industry by allowing multiple virtualized OS (virtual machines) to run simultaneously on the same hardware. In this way, applications ran as if they had their own dedicated compute, memory and storage. However, it was all being shared. Simply put, the hardware server had become virtualized. Brilliant!

This allowed companies to create virtual representations of resources such as compute, memory and storage devices. Companies could now run multiple applications over the same physical hardware, in a way that appeared to the applications as though they were running over their own dedicated hardware. More importantly, companies could now fully leverage every single resource at their disposal. Nothing would be left dormant or unused in this virtualized model, unlike what we saw in the past with a dedicated appliance/server per application.

At this point, it was a no brainer to move into the virtualized application world. However, the ugly truth remained: we were still using a legacy networking framework. Many continue to refer to this as client-server, but the bottom line is that it was a hierarchical model that required each node and link to be configured to carry or simulate end-to-end virtualization. Even though the application environment was virtualized, the infrastructure on which it ran was not built with that in mind. It didn’t matter if you were using VLANs, VRFs or even MPLS—it was a complex way of providing end-to-end virtualized services.

Who would finally be able to solve this issue? It seemed the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) were on the right track with the standardization of an Ethernet protocol that allows end-to-end services virtualization, which finally took place in May 2012. This is known as SPB, or Shortest Path Bridging (IEEE 802.1aq and IETF RFC 6329 for those interested). And there you have it: servers, applications and networks are now finally virtualized! Are we done? Well, not quite … even desktops are being virtualized, known as VDI (Virtual Desktop Infrastructure) to re-centralize control.

Overall, virtualization became the de facto model that allowed businesses to run applications on what we know as the Cloud. With private and public models, customers could now choose what assets they wanted to own (that is, manage on premises) or have hosted through the public cloud. Soon, however, the challenge became how to run apps in these clouds. Companies quickly discovered the need to store some applications (like regulatory and compliance data) in an onsite private cloud. Meanwhile, other data was best suited for the public cloud. This is how the hybrid cloud deployment model was born.

Cloud Elasticity

Hybrid cloud allowed companies to operate in an environment that strategically utilized the best of both worlds—both on-premises private cloud and third-party public cloud services—to meet their core objectives. In this new world of cloud orchestration, we saw the rise of digital giants like Amazon, Google and Facebook. With a high level of cloud elasticity, providers could now spin up series of virtual applications or services in less than an hour to run them in the public cloud. This unhinged the doors of opportunity for companies everywhere. These providers allowed organizations to create new instances on the fly and shut them down just as quickly. It’s used, for example, to soft launch new products or test drive business in new marketplaces.

But let’s not forget the issue that remains to this day: we have yet to completely move away from all aging hardware. In today’s world of any-to-any communication, driven by technologies like the IoT, artificial intelligence, and machine learning, legacy hardware and hierarchical networking architecture are not just an inconvenience. They can break your business if you don’t have a strategy to reduce that dependency.

Finally Breaking Free of Hardware

The bottom line is that any-to-any communications have won the battle (unlike 15 years ago, where IT largely resisted and essentially shut down the peer-to-peer model). As a result, what many refer to as “meshed communication architecture” emerged as the newest and strongest-yet approach to network design.

This kind of architecture is integrated, agile and future-proof enough to effectively and securely support a services-based ecosystem. The days of nodal configuration and virtualization are a thing of the past. It’s vital that companies move to this services-based architecture to be able to support the future of the customer experience. Consider how it’s essential for supporting smart cars that can autonomously park and change lanes, while being redirected to alternate routes because of traffic congestion. It’s critical for supporting smart home solutions that enable homeowners to remotely manage utility usage. It’s crucial for delivering the most value possible to those who matter most: end-users.

For decades, we’ve been trying to eliminate a primal dependency on hardware. To finally break the silos associated with hardware, companies must begin setting themselves up to support any-to-any communication. In this environment, all services can virtually run anywhere across multiple sources of hardware that can be geographically dispersed.

Now that we know what can be done about legacy systems (transition to an open, software-enabled, meshed architecture), let’s discuss how companies can successfully integrate digital into their existing environment to transform business. Stay tuned for more.

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Customers Explain Why Chatbots Matter for Contact Centers

I recently attended Jeff Pulver’s 2017 MoNage conference to get the latest views on chatbot usage and expectations for serving customers. Jeff Pulver created the Voice over the Net Conference when voice over the internet was in its infancy. As a co-founder of Vonage and other companies, his vision helped drive the industry we all take for granted. He’s brought his vision to the world of chat with his 140-Character conferences and most recently the MoNage conference.

Jeff says that “as chatbots get better and better, there may be less of a need to visit a business website.” We may reach a point where chatbots connected to Facebook pages and voice services via Amazon’s Alexa become the main conduit for getting information.” He probably is right. There is no shortage of software and services companies, including Avaya, that are investing significantly in the field of chatbot technology for contact centers applications.

Industry analyst Jon Arnold says contact center operators need to ensure millennials have a chat experience that is fast and personal. The ability for an agent to leverage the full context of all of the previous transactions is at the heart of providing a personalized one-to-one customer experience.

Anyone with a teenager knows if you want to reach them, you text them—unless you like the nostalgia of hearing a voice mail greeting and leaving a message that may not be picked up for a week. Those millennials, who use chat over email, including chat applications at work, are the same ones raising the bar for businesses to serve them via chat. How long will it be before the response a millennial expects for a package status is an emoji?

The introduction of chatbots represents the re-birth of interactive voice response in textual self-service instead of voice prompts. Chatbots enable a customer to answer questions via text. They ask, “How can I help you?” The customer’s answer of “What is my account balance?” is the equivalent of speaking to a speech recognition application.

With chat, recent AI innovations interpret your sentence and provide a response that is best matched to the context of your question. This is similar to Amazon’s Alexa listening to your voice and providing a response. Many companies are working to perfect the ability to interpret chat sequences, often to assuage the customers who press 0 multiple times to reach an agent. Today, customers can have the same frustrating experience with chat that they’ve had with interactive voice—ultimately they want to talk with a live agent. The goal has always been to enable more automation and self-service methods to reduce costs, without having a negative impact on customer satisfaction. There is a critical need to get it right.

Requesting a live agent to assist with a chat session introduces major challenges for businesses. They must staff a contact center with agents who can respond appropriately to chat messages. This introduces the need for typing and grammar skills and new staffing level challenges for balancing voice and chat demand.

Businesses must ensure consistency in chat responses and, most importantly, ensure a positive experience with the live agent during a transaction. So agent skills must now include the ability to respond to SMS and text chat sessions from websites and mobile applications. This includes the ability to type clearly, and often handle multiple transactions simultaneously to fill the delays with customer responses. Many of us have experienced chat sessions with agents where there is a long delay due to agents serving other customers.

Chat sessions are often emailed to customers at the end, creating a document that customers can use for many purposes: tweeting about what an agent just wrote, or using what an agent just wrote to get improper discounts or advantages from errors. To guard against such customer behavior, agents must have fast access to standard, consistent answers to common questions and ensure responses conform to company policies.

Customers Communicate with Companies—Not Agents

Customers expect a business that can communicate via live chat to ensure the agent understands their situation. The last thing they want is to send a lengthy email describing a situation, and then be offered a live chat with someone who doesn’t have access to the email. Internal information silos require the customer to ask if it is worth starting over again and again. They expect the agent to have the full context of all their interactions. The effort to serve the customer by chat can result in a negative experience even if the agent tried everything they could to serve them.

Agents Need Contextual Information

Chatbots start with an attempt to serve a customer via automation. Costs are avoided when customers serve themselves, just like they deposit a check by taking a photo instead of having a bank employee process it. Contact center managers must enable their agents to access the full context of the chat dialog, any emails, and CRM records so they can serve the customer without asking what they should already know.

Chat Introduces a New Opportunity to Leverage Agent Attributes

Once you make the move to introducing live agent chat, you need to determine which agents have the proper attributes for handling chat, including multiple simultaneous chat sessions. You’ll need to train employees how to properly respond, including how to deliver recommended standard responses. In addition, you’ll have to evaluate how many multiple chats an agent can handle, which will vary based on individual abilities. Selecting agents based on these skills can make all the difference in customer satisfaction results.

Agent Attribute Models Increase Contact Center Operational Efficiency

There is a tremendous opportunity to increase contact center operations by having agents with the attributes for handling voice and chat and SMS sessions. Did you know 250+250=450. Here’s why: the workload of 250 voice-only agents plus 250 chat-only agents can be served by 450 agents who can do both. The result is a higher utilization level than with individual silos. Evaluating agent availability by their individual attributes and operating your contact center at higher utilization levels significantly reduces your most costly resource—your contact center agent labor expenses.

Interested in learning more about defining and leveraging agent attribute modeling? Get more info in this Avaya blog from Laura Bassett: “Get out of the Queue: Drive your CX with Attribute Matching?” And talk with Avaya Experts—we’re here to help you serve your customers like never before. We can help you match agents with the best attributes for each individual customer. The ultimate win for all. Contact us. Let’s chat!

Digital Transformation—Powering New Experiences for Employees and Customers

There’s no let-up in the pace of change. New apps, new services and new ways of getting it done seem to spring up daily, and can seem at times, overwhelming. Thankfully, many of these new capabilities are actually making our lives easier, more fulfilling, and more productive. We’re on the cusp of a change that will go well beyond Googling an answer or picking up a voice call when you’re out and about. The analyst firm IDC calls the change Digital Transformation (DX) and defines it as “an approach that enables organizations to drive changes in their business models and ecosystems by leveraging digital competencies.”

Digital Transformation is Underway and Moving Fast

Digital Transformation promises to change the very fabric of our lives, as the Internet of Things, mobility, and big data make us more aware, more reachable, and more satisfied with our interactions, both personal and professional. The road to DX will be paved with innovations large and small. They will change the way we interact with other people and with the machines that move us, house us, feed us, and keep us healthy and engaged. But what about today? How can DX allow me to do a better job today?

IDC has done some interesting research on the notion of unified communications—that promised land of intuitive, rapid, well-organized, and multimodal interaction that we’ve been talking of for so long. They’ve determined that the market for UC solutions is growing (by 9% per year to about $38B globally by 2020) and that increasing productivity and collaboration and reducing expenses remain the key motivators for UC investments.

The Day-Changing Avaya Equinox™ Experience

These motivators are at the heart of the Avaya Equinox Experience. Equinox is built around a mobile-first reality—the notion that our smartphones and tablets have become our lifeline to … everything. How often do you look at your phone? Someone told me the average is 84 times a day. If you’re a boomer like me, it might not be that many times, but I’d guess I still look at my phone at least 40 times during my work day. Now what if each time I looked at my phone I was presented with my meeting schedule, my latest IMs, and my recent call logs? And what if that information was mirrored across my devices so that I could move seamlessly from my desk to my smartphone to my tablet to my laptop and always get the same consistent information, presented in the same intuitive way?

Sounds good, doesn’t it? And what if I could take the next step and actually take action on that information with a single tap? Enter my conference calls, open video and collaboration, return a call, or respond to a message? This ability to both understand my day’s priorities and take action on what’s most important is what defines the Avaya Equinox Experience. It’s the ability to have a UC experience that is, in fact, unified! It makes a major difference in my day and you can likely imagine how it could make a major difference in yours.

More DX Solutions from Avaya

Along with the Equinox Experience, Avaya also recently released two other innovations that we think define and support your move to DX. The Avaya Breeze™ Client SDK was used to create Equinox and Avaya now offers it to our developer ecosystem and our customers to create their own unique experiences. Would you like to integrate communications into an existing enterprise application? Does Equinox sound intriguing but you’re wondering if you could make a few tweaks for your specific vertical or enterprise needs? Add collaboration to a unique mobile app you’ve created? Or develop a kiosk experience that includes seamless communications access to additional resources? The Avaya Breeze Client SDK will give you the tools you need to bring the world of DX into your own organization—in the way that you think is best.

But what about placing those unique experiences into your environment? Your hotel rooms? Your patient rooms? Your retail spaces? Or your branch offices? Avaya Vantage is an all-glass device that is secure and admin-able and lets you take the customized experiences you created with the Breeze Client SDK and place them cost effectively into the locations that make sense for your business. You can provide unique offers, tailored experiences, create awareness of your services, and take your customer’s experience to the next level.

Interested in learning more? Check out the video clip of IDC Analyst, Rich Costello, and Avaya Director of Product Management, Paul Relf, as they discuss how digital transformation powers the new UC work experience. Read the IDC paper on DX and Avaya solutions. As always, we’re here to help you on your own DX journey! Send us a note, ask us a question, pose a problem to solve—we’d love to hear from you.

Call it what you will: Multi-channel, Omnichannel—It isn’t about the Contact Center!

At this point, we know that most companies are competing exclusively on the customer experience (83%, according to Dimension Data). McKinsey Insights shows that effective customer journeys are impactful: increase revenue by up to 15%, boost customer satisfaction by up to 20%, and turn predictive insight into customers’ needs by up to 30%. The issue isn’t that companies fail to understand the importance of the customer experience (CX). The problem is that over half of companies today fail to grasp what is arguably the single most important driver of a successful CX strategy: organizational alignment.

This isn’t to say that companies aren’t taking the necessary steps to strengthen their CX strategies. Looking back five years ago, 92% of organizations were already working to integrate multiple interaction channels—call it multi-channel, omnichannel, digital transformation—to deliver more consistent, contextualized experiences. The needle is moving in the right direction. However, companies will find themselves in a stalemate if they limit the customer experience to the contact center.

Customer Experience is the Entire Brand Journey

That’s right, the customer experience is NOT about the contact center. In fact, it never was. The customer experience is instead about seamlessly supporting consumers across their entire brand journey regardless of where, when, how and with whom it happens. This means supporting not just one business area (i.e., the contact center), but the entire organization as one living, breathing entity. This means supporting not just one single interaction, but the entire experience a customer has with a company from start to—well, forever. After all, the customer journey never truly ends.

Are companies ready for this future of the customer experience? Perhaps not: 52% of companies currently don’t share customer intelligence outside of the contact center, according to Deloitte.

Executives are planning for not only contact channels to expand but most are expecting these interaction journeys to grow in complexity. It’s clear that a contact-center-only structure doesn’t cut it anymore. At today’s rate of growth and change, it’s easy to see how a CX strategy can miss the mark when the entire customer journey is being limited to the contact center. Imagine how much stronger a company would perform if it supported the customer experience as the natural enterprise-wide journey it is? A journey where interactions take place across multiple channels and devices, unfolding across multiple key areas of business (i.e., sales, HR, billing, marketing)?

Imagine, for instance, a hospital immediately routing an outpatient to the travel nurse who cared for him last week, although she is now on the road to her next location. Imagine a bank being able to automatically route a customer to a money management expert after seeing that the last five questions asked via live chat were about account spending. Imagine a salesperson knowing that a customer attended a webinar last week on a new product launch and had submitted three questions—all before picking up the phone. Imagine a retail store associate knowing you walked in and that you were searching online for formal attire.

Contextual Awareness is Critical

Today’s CX strategy is no longer about asking the right questions: it’s about having the right information at the right time to drive anticipatory engagement. It’s no longer about being able to resolve a customer issue quickly. It’s about building an authentic, organization-wide relationship based on contextual awareness. In short, this means companies being able to openly track, measure, and share customer data across all teams, processes, and customer touch points. This ability either makes or breaks the CX today.

So, are you near the breaking point? Consider that nearly 40% of executives say their agents’ top frustration is that they can’t access all of the information they need. Less than 25% of contact centers today enjoy full collaboration on process design with their entire enterprise. Connected customer journeys and the overall CX are now top areas of focus as most organizations support up to nine channel options. CX will encounter a dramatic shift of reimagined customer engagements that will be able to incorporate technologies such as artificial intelligence, IoT, analytics, and augmented reality and virtual reality.

The bottom line is this: organizations must support an enterprise-wide customer journey to support the future of the CX now! They must share contextual data inside and outside of the contact center, and they need seamless and immediate access to that data anytime, anywhere, under any given circumstance. Above all, organizations need the right architectural foundation to support this anytime, anywhere ecosystem—otherwise, even their best moves will always result in a draw.